IAm Heath Ledger, a new documentary about the late and great Australian actor, is quite nakedly a film about grief, grievers and grieving – though I’m not sure that was the intention.
In their estate-approved film, co-directors Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray summon an array of Ledger’s friends, family and close associates, all of whom speak in the mournfully celebratory way one does when reminiscing on a loved one whose life was cut tragically short.
The first is musician Ben Harper, a close friend of Ledger’s. Harper honestly believes “the earth is off-axis” and “there is something that is universally out of alignment with what happened”, rationalising the death of the heartthrob-cum-posthumous-Oscar-winner by claiming the gods were lying down on the job.
Other interviewees are more melancholic, among them Ben Mendelsohn, Naomi Watts, Ang Lee, Djimon Hounsou and Ledger’s parents and sisters. There are many noticeable absentees, including ex-partner (and the mother of his daughter) Michelle Williams and virtually every director Ledger worked with other than Lee.
Imbued with a trove of old personal videos and low-fi behind-the-scenes footage, and chock-a-bloc with bittersweet reflections of Ledger’s character and ambition, the film has the homemade, timeworn, slightly scrappy quality of a well-used and well-loved photo album. It is sweet but desperately sad, earmarked from the start with a eulogy-like quality that makes no claim to bearing any kind of even vaguely subjective intellectual perspective.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, though it’s clear early on the approach has limitations. This is a documentary first and foremost for fans. The sheer number of people reminiscing in such sincere, unfeigned, heartfelt ways makes the film an uncommonly tender portrait of a celebrity, infused with a sense of humanity.
The downside is an unwillingness to go places the audience probably consider par for the course. The obvious example is Ledger’s death, which is barely given even cursory consideration.
The focus of the film is, quite rightly, the actor’s life and work, but to ignore the elephant in the room in such a way feels close to dereliction of duty; perhaps also a lost opportunity to inform others about issues such as consumption of dangerous prescription drugs. When Ledger’s longtime agent Steve Alexander observes that he “struggled with some demons”, that’s as far as anybody goes, the closest thing to “demons” being – according to the film – pneumonia and a lack of sleep.
The film arrives in Australian cinemas the same week as another, more inventive documentary about a great Australian artist, Whiteley, which also attempts to explore its subject’s life using his own words as much as possible. Buitenhuis and Murray almost completely ignore formal recorded interviews conducted with Ledger when he was alive, in favour of short (and frequently self-filmed) footage depicting his jocular, off-the-cuff side.
It’s easy to see the logic in showcasing unseen footage, though I wonder if the film would have been a more balanced contemplation of art and artist if it had included more of the actor seriously unpacking his craft.
I Am Heath Ledger is most persuasive as a study of an actor learning and evolving. Like Marlon Brando, Ledger began his career as a hunk but became so much more. His skills, climaxing in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight, seemed to form like the concentric growth circles of a tree, visually evolving with the passing of time.
• I Am Heath Ledger plays in limited release in Australia for one week from 11 May